What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Originally published 19/02/2017

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.

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5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Originally published 05/02/2017

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!

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What To Do When You Hate Your Story

Originally published 29/01/2017

The worst possible thing that can happen to any writer is for them to look at their work (especially their half finished work) and decide that it’s rubbish. Any idiot can overcome writer’s block with just a little bit of perseverance, but despairing over your story can be crippling. Not only will it halt you in your tracks, but it will probably make you want to give up writing altogether. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Quitting is NOT an option!

That includes quitting your current story, as well as quitting writing altogether.

There is a way out of this situation. The first thing you need to remember is that the despair you’re feeling over your current story is almost certainly all in your mind. If you’re anything like me, you can quite easily flit between thinking your story is the most important piece of literature in the history of the world ever to being downright ashamed of it in the space of a few hours. So the first step is to refuse to give up. You were once pleased with the shape your story was taking; you will be pleased again in the future if you persevere. So, once you’ve resolved to carry on writing no matter how bad things get, it’s time for some positive actions. These are a few tried and tested techniques that I find work for me.

Take a Break

Seriously, sometimes all you need is to do something other than writing for a little while. However the important thing to remember here is that you’re trying to clear away some cobwebs, so I would recommend against vegging out on the sofa brooding about what a terrible author you are. Trust me, that doesn’t help.

Instead, do something stimulating – as long as it’s not writing. The goal here is to release some happy hormones, so read a book, take a walk or whatever it is that makes you feel revitalised. Better yet, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that makes you feel like you don’t suck at life. Maybe you play a mean pinball. Go beat your high score, do a celebratory run around the living room then come back to your story.

Oh that reminds me, you also want to make sure your break ends at some point. Either set a time limit or make sure that your chosen recreational activity has a clearly defined finishing point so that you don’t forget to write altogether. I’ve done that before myself…

A Change is as Good as a Rest

If you don’t quite trust yourself to withdraw completely from writing your story but still feel like you could use a break… write something else.

To clarify, I do not mean give up on the story that’s giving you trouble. I simply mean spend half an hour or so writing something else, then come back to your story.

If it’s only your current project that’s getting you down, but you still feel like a perfectly capable story teller, then try your hand at some flash fiction or even poetry. Something completely different to get the juices flowing, but not so long that it swallows up your time working on your main project. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be fiction you write. Personally, I find writing this blog every week gives me a real shot in the arm.

If, on the other hand, you feel like such a failure at writing that you’re just about ready to quit and go back to the day job, try keeping a writer’s journal. Don’t try to be clever here. You’re not writing this to have it published, or even read by other human eyes. This is simply a constructive way of getting out all of those horrible, self-depreciating feelings that you have as well as tracking your progress and analysing where you might be going wrong.

Break Your Problem Down OR Draft Like Crazy

If you’re absolutely determined that a rest is not what you need, then try a change of approach. Broadly speaking there are two ways to go about this, depending on what stage of the writing process you’re at and how you like to go about writing a story.

If you feel like you’re up to your armpits in disjointed or poorly written scenes, it would be wise to go back to the old drawing board and consider where your story might be going wrong. Perhaps you need to flesh out your character profiles. Perhaps your protagonist lacks a satisfying character arc. Perhaps the pacing of your story is all off. Either way, it’s time to set aside the manuscript and get into the nitty gritty of your plan. If you already have a plan set out, this is a sensible place to start. If not, it’s maybe time you thought about putting one together.

If, on the other hand, you are working on a detailed plan when despair strikes, it might be that you’re overthinking the matter. If you find yourself lamenting how implausible your story is or how ‘it’s been done before!’ then this probably applies to you. The truth is, fiction is nearly always implausible; that’s why it hasn’t really happened. And fiction has nearly always been done before; there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Put your plan to one side for a while and try to write a draft of your story as freely as you can. Don’t edit (you might find Typewriter handy for that) and don’t worry about where it’s going. Be led by your muse and write whatever comes to you. Doing this can sometimes help you to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to you simply by staring at charts and tables.

Whether any of this helps or not, remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now’. If you are despairing of your writing, remember that this is only a temporary setback. You cannot run out of ‘author-juice’, nor can the same story idea be good one day then bad the next. It is only a mindset that is holding you back, so persevere and win!

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On Titles

Originally published 11/12/2016

Titles are possibly one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to writing your story, no matter what it’s genre and format. Not only are they hard to come up with, but they (like most things) tend to be a matter of taste. If there’s one thing I personally hate, it’s when writers (or perhaps more likely, their publishers) feel the need to give their book an agonisingly tedious title like ‘Confessions of a [optional adjective] [noun]’. That’s a great way to stop me ever reading your book, watching your film, attending your play or partaking of anything else you might produce. Writers and publishers everywhere, take note: I really hate that kind of title with an indomitable passion.

But I digress.

Titles are hard but you can’t very well avoid giving your story one. Most depressingly of all, there’s a good chance your publisher will throw out your snazzy title that you agonised over and replace it with some other, more marketable title (Confessions of a Philistine Publisher, or something like that). Still, they won’t even look at your story if you don’t give it a title first so there’s nothing else for it, I’m afraid. Your story needs a title.

So, let’s start by defining exactly what a title ought to be. First and foremost, the title must be relevant. Please don’t call your story The Swashbuckling Adventures of Captain Bloodbeard if you’ve written a cozy mystery novel set in some English country estate. If your title promises swashbuckling adventures, your story had better deliver swashbuckling adventures; and the only people I know who swash their buckles are pirates. Don’t get me wrong. A good title can be a little bit more cryptic than the one I’ve just made up, but there’s a big difference between cryptic and downright misleading.

Your title is a promise to your audience. Like any good advert, it should tantalise the audience with the promise of a good story without giving too much away. The reason Peter Newman’s The Vagrant caught my eye (among all the other fantasy novels on the same shelf) was because it promised me something that I always look for in a story: a compelling protagonist. I did not know for sure at this stage if the protagonist was actually going to be any good, but as soon as I saw that title, I was willing to give it a chance because I needed to know who the Vagrant was. If, on the other hand, Newman had simply entitled his novel ‘The Bloke’, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders (in fact, with a title like that, I wouldn’t have really expected to find it under fantasy at all, but never mind).

Some titles are phrases borrowed from the text of the story itself. The title A Game of Thrones for instance is a phrase which is used in the actual text of the story. Personally, I’m always a little bit cautious about doing this. It works with A Game of Thrones for two reasons:

  1. It’s a really snazzy phrase
  2. It encapsulates what the story is about, without giving away any spoilers.

You really need both of these in place to make a title like this work. If it’s not a snazzy phrase, it won’t catch anyone’s attention and if it doesn’t give some indication as to what the story might be about, you will only end up with disappointed readers. The phrase, ‘Alas! Earwax!’ is found in the first Harry Potter book, but let’s be honest: if you saw a book in a shop entitled Alas! Earwax! you wouldn’t expect it to be a story about wizards. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, never come up with your title and then try to incorporate it into the text of your story… otherwise you’ll end up with something horrible like:

And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

Another possibility is to use well known expressions and sayings as titles (as long as they’re relevant. Always keep it relevant). For example, the title of Jeffery Archer’s Cometh the Hour is clearly derived from the expression ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. We all know that expression and what it means, and therefore, when we see the title of Archer’s book, we get a certain idea in our head of what kind of story it might be (without it really giving anything away). If, however, you can’t find an expression that conveys the kind of ideas you want it to convey, why not try distorting a popular idiom as Ian Fleming does in Live and Let Die. Not only does that title tell you something about the story itself, but it is also eye-catching because it flies in the face of popular wisdom.

Alternatively, if you’re really feeling brave, you might want to use a single word as your title. If you’re going to do this, I would generally use a word that sums up the main theme of your story. While it is certainly possible to name your story after the main character (e.g. Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace) or the main setting of your story (e.g. Dune by Frank Herbert), it’s unlikely that these kinds of titles will catch anyone’s attention if we’ve never heard of the people or places in question before now. Why should I care about who Ben-Hur is or what happens on Dune (not that I’m knocking Dune or Ben-Hur; they are, in fact, two of my favourite books)? On the other hand, Roald Dahl’s short-story collection, Deception, has a very effective title because it sums up the main theme of every story therein. We all know what it is to deceive and be deceived. It’s a theme we all understand and care about; therefore, it becomes interesting to us.

I hope some of this helps. Also, remember that while it is important to come up with a good title, try not to lose any sleep over it either. What really matters is that you tell a great story. You can have the best darn title in the world, but the story is what your audience will really care about. Some of my favourite books have rubbish titles and there’s a good chance your publisher will change the title anyway, so it’s not worth getting overly attached to anyway. But don’t let that stop you from coming up with the best title you can. After all, it’s the first thing your would-be publisher will see so give it your best shot. If your story has to get rejected, make sure that it gets rejected because for the story – not because it’s got boring title.

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A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

Originally published 04/12/2016

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

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Ten Writing Commandments

Originally published 18/09/2016

I’m in a cliché sort of mood today and since I don’t want to burden the novel I intend to work on this afternoon with clichés, I’m afraid I’m going to burden you with them instead. Behold, my Ten Writing Commandments, predictably humorously written in a crude approximation of ‘King James English’ and with helpful expositions of each rule.

Most of these rules are as old as the hills and are probably familiar to you. I am not, for one second, claiming to have invented any of these rules. However, this is a compilation of ten writing precepts, from a variety of sources, that I have found to be particularly useful to me. I should add that the expositions I have included are all my own.

So, without further ado…

1. Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.

This is what separates quality prose from a technical manual. Allow me to demonstrate with an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

‘They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans…’ (emphasis mine).

This is a well written line. Rather than telling you what happened, it uses imagery to allow the reader to experience for themselves the sight of two men, stuffing their faces with beans.

Here is what that exact same passage might look like if it was all telling and no showing:

‘They sat by the fire and ate lots of beans.’

Exactly the same thing is happening here but it fails to capture the gluttony of the ravening men. The reader is not transported to the fireside to witness the feast of beans. We are simply informed. Boring!

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee unrealistic goals.

Be honest with yourself about what it is possible to achieve. A thousand words a day seems like a small goal, but after only one year, you will have 365,000 words; that’s a trilogy of novels, all because you succeeded in reaching your daily goal. But if you set yourself a goal of 10,000 words a day and fail to meet it, you will never complete anything.

Slow and steady wins the race (I haven’t got these clichés out of my system just yet)!

3. Thou shalt remove all distractions.

I’m looking at you, Facebook. Get rid of anything that might distract your attention. TV, internet, chattering relatives, the lot. Focus solely on achieving the goal you have set for yourself that day. If you find yourself prone to a wandering mind, allow yourself regular but carefully timed breaks to do all the other little things you need/want to do… but when it’s writing time, it’s writing time.

4. Thou shalt not use words in vain.

Waffle is no fun to read… so why it write it?

Oh, I see… you want to ‘pad out’ your story to reach your word limit, so you’re thinking of adding in lots of unnecessary words to make your sentences longer? Well, don’t. All that does is breaks up the flow of your story. Take this phrase for example: ‘The brightly shining sun…’

There are four words in that phrase, two of which (‘brightly’ and ‘shining’) are superfluous. The reader doesn’t need you to tell them that the sun is shining brightly, because the sun always shines brightly by its very nature. It’s never dull or dark. The noun ‘sun’ naturally conjures images of bright shininess all by itself. If the sun was shining dimly for some reason, then an adverb might just come in handy!

If in doubt, remember the rule that every word and sentence you write ought to help the story to progress. Don’t tell the reader what they already know or do not need to know.

5. Thou shalt know thine audience.

Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to think about the commercial side of writing, knowing your intended audience is the only way to know exactly what to write. No story, no matter how well written, will suit everybody; therefore, it must suit somebody. It is only possible to reliably accomplish this if you know in advance who that somebody is.

6. Thou shalt write regularly and often.

Some say you have to write every single day or you are doomed to fail. I think that’s a slight exaggeration but the principle is sound. Depending on your circumstances, it might be more appropriate to write seven, six or five days a week but what really matters is that you get into a habit of writing often (because believe me, good writers practice their craft) and at regular set times to help you avoid distraction. Not only this, but having a regular writing time means you will also have a regular ‘clocking off’ time – because writing every hour God sends is no healthier than being at any other job 24/7.

7. Thou shalt write swiftly…

Planner or pantser, the same applies to both of you: when it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is to make sure words are constantly appearing on the page without stopping to improve (or worse, delete) what you’ve just written. This is not the time for editing or second-guessing yourself. Get your story down in all its dreadful badness. A bad story can become a good story, but nothing won’t become anything. If you really can’t bring yourself to do it, join an archaeology expedition and try to dig up an old typewriter and write your story on that instead.

8. … and thou shalt edit slowly.

Having said that, you still want your story to be perfect. So, once you’ve got your story written down, go over it with a fine tooth comb. Analyse it carefully and in detail; word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Find whatever stylistic or grammatical problems there may be and do not rest until they have all been resolved to your satisfaction.

9. Thou shalt retain professional detachment from everything you write.

What I mean by this is that no part of your story – words, sentences, metaphors, word-play, characters, plot twists or anything else – should be safe from being changed or completely deleted as necessary. What matters is the story. This is especially important for writers of speculative fiction who feel the need to explain every intricate detail of how their fantasy world functions. You as the writer might be very excited about what you’ve created, but the truth is, the reader is not. The reader is looking for a story, so don’t go off on long tangents.

The same is true, however, even in non-speculative fiction. Perhaps you have written some really powerful dialogue or the perfect fight scene… but they have no real function in your story. They will need to go. Therefore, do not become overly attached to anything you have create or else when you come to edit, it will be like having one hand tied behind your back.

10. Thou shalt break these commandments as ye see fit.

I mentioned at the beginning that these were ten rules that I have found to be useful to me personally. The truth is, I’ve come across dozens of books and websites claiming that ‘this, that or the other’ is the most important rule to follow in writing but really… there are successful writers who follow one set of rules and there are those who do the exact opposite. Some write daily; some do not. Some plan; some pants. I remember once on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a particular character commented that you can only write about what you have experienced… which got me wondering what planet (literally) the writers of Star Trek were living on. I’ve said it several times today and I’ll say it again: what matters is your story.

If the only way you know to get words on the page is to do the opposite of everything I’ve written here, then do it with my blessing. Rules are made to be broken.

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Why I Quit Camp NaNoWriMo

Originally published 31/07/2016

Before anyone gets cross with me, I want to say that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and there is no doubt in my mind it works for a lot of people. If you’ve had a positive experience with NaNoWriMo, good for you! If you happen to be one of the brains behind NaNoWriMo, I want to offer my sincere congratulations and thanks to you for providing an approach to writing that obviously benefits thousands (or maybe even zillions) of writers and helps them get their novels written. If you’re planning on ever using NaNoWriMo or anything like it in the future, please, do not let me discourage you. That’s the last thing I want to do. NaNoWriMo is just fab!  You should try it!

Now that that’s out of the way…

I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year, full of enthusiasm and the certain hope that it would propel me towards my goal of furthering (if not necessarily completing) my novel. I’d heard about NaNoWriMo from various folks but this was the first time I’d ever actually got around to trying it out for myself. It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, I will admit. My novel was going nowhere (although he’s feeling much better now, thanks) and I noticed someone on Twitter remarking that they had just signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo.

Ah-ha! I thought, Now’s as good a time as any to give this whole NaNoWriMo lark a bash. Maybe it will help me complete my novel…

I was very excited about it. I was going to make progress and lots of it! I joined a cabin so that I could compare notes with other like-minded writers; I read all the useful ‘camp care packages’ that were sent to my inbox, full of useful advice to help me make the most of Camp NaNoWriMo; I perused the forums and all the articles full of helpful writing tips…

The one thing I did not do was write my novel. Sure, I had been stuck in a serious rut before I started Camp NaNoWriMo but at least I was sitting at my computer with Scrivener open for my appointed writing times, even if I was just writing things like ‘I suck at writing :-‘ all over my manuscript. For that first week or so of Camp NaNoWriMo, I didn’t even do that. I spent large chunks of my allotted writing time perusing the forums, checking my inbox and chilling with my cabin mates. Wonderful though all of these things are, the truth is that when you’re struggling to write your novel (and everybody does at some point), there is only one solution: write it anyway. Write it badly and fix it later if you have to, but you must write it. I often find that when I’m not having any success at writing something I’m proud of, it is tempting to either give up or else to try to find (usually on the internet) some clever ‘get out of writer’s block free card’.  The former is obviously unacceptable; the latter is just the former in disguise.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of websites, books and other resources which can really help to improve your writing style, get you some constructive critiques of your work or simply motivate you towards greater productivity (like NaNoWriMo). If I thought those kinds of resources weren’t useful, I wouldn’t waste your time by writing this blog week after week! But if, like me, you are struggling to think of what to write, I’m afraid to say I know of no quick fix except to write anyway, even if what you write is rubbish (you can — and should — always come back and edit it later). Resources like NaNoWriMo, no matter how good they may be, can’t make you write, nor can it tell you what to write. That’s not what it’s supposed to do. That’s what you, the author, is supposed to do.

So I quit. Just over a week into it, I resolved not to go back to the Camp NaNoWriMo website for the remainder of the month. I was going to sit down in front of Scrivener with the biggest mug of tea I could and I was going to put words on that page even if it meant drawing blood.

I won’t lie to you. It was like drawing blood at first – from the proverbial stone. A lot of what I wrote was rubbish. But any farmer will tell you that to produce a healthy crop, you need to spread plenty of manure on your land and writing is no different. The more proverbial manure you produce, the better your ideas will grow and before you know it, you’ll have a story you can really be proud of. No one will be able to help you write your story if you’re not willing to actually sit down and write. I definitely want to encourage anyone who is thinking of using NaNoWriMo to give it a bash because it’s a great idea; just don’t make the same mistake I did of using it as an excuse to procrastinate. That’s the complete opposite of what it was designed for.

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Ideas from the Everyday

Originally published 17/01/2016

There’s a very old and tired adage that authors should only write about what they know. On the whole, I don’t think this is really the best advice in the world but when you’ve not got any ideas about what to write, it’s often a good place to start.

‘Oh yeah,’ I hear you cry, ‘Well I’ve just got a humdrum run of the mill every day 9-5 sort of life and I don’t know nothing about nothing so how can I write an interesting story?’

I’ve often wondered that myself. I, too, have a very ordinary life which I doubt they’ll ever make a movie about it – and I should add, that I’m very grateful for that! But unless you happen to have experienced something truly remarkable, I find it highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to simply recount your life story and expect it to sell.

That doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are able to start writing. Once you start, you can go anywhere. Even the most boring events in your life can become a wellspring of inspiration. The important thing to remember is this:

Not everything you write needs to be published. Therefore, it’s okay to write rubbish.

For example, a few years ago, on one particularly snowy winter, I got stuck on a bus for fifteen and a half hours on what would have normally been a twenty minute journey. The true story of what happened was pretty boring. I sat there for fifteen and a half hours, trying not to think about toilets and amusing myself by watching people building snowmen on the motorway. When I finally got home (after I had had something to eat and a good night’s sleep) I went about the business of trying to turn it into a work of fiction.

It wasn’t easy. The simple truth is, it was a tedious experience which came slap-bang in the middle of a fairly bog-standard week of studying for my exams and attending my office job. To this day, I’m not satisfied that it was ever really finished. But it was not a wasted effort, not in the slightest. By writing this boring little story based on my boring night on the bus, I created a protagonist I was immensely proud of. His name is Dr. Henry Barrington-Smyth; a reclusive, socially awkward man who has devoted himself to the study of theology and philosophy, with a particular interest in ethics.

When I first created Henry, he was a fairly shy, mild mannered sort of man who developed a friendship with one of his fellow passengers on the bus through their mutual boredom.

I know. Rubbish.

But from that rubbish little story, I was able to expand far beyond what happened on the bus that night and create something new. When I re-wrote this story, I made Henry an altogether more aloof figure. While all the passengers on the bus began to chat and make friends, Henry was deliberately resistant and was downright rude to the woman he had befriended in my previous draft (all the while, reading a scholarly work about what constituted moral goodness).

Still rubbish, but I was starting to like Henry. So I gave him a bad guy to deal with. Someone else on the bus (Dave) was drunk and was behaving in an aggressive manner towards the passengers and the driver. Also the woman he had previously befriended became unwell. None of this happened during my true experience on the bus, but it gave the protagonist something to do. If you remember my previous post about how I like to audition characters, this is very much the same sort of thing. Characters can develop quite naturally if you are willing to test them in various situations, especially crucible situations from which they cannot escape (such as being stuck on a bus).

Since then, I’ve tried Henry out in a whole bunch of different scenarios at different stages of his life, from childhood right through to the death of his wife when Henry was 72. I invented a fictional home-town for him and am now working on a mystery story set in that fictional town which is altogether more interesting than the story I originally came up with based on that one boring experience I once had.

Don’t set out to only write about what you know. Unless you’ve experienced something truly amazing or horrifying, you’ll probably just get bored and/or frustrated.

Don’t set out to only write something especially clever, either. That kind of perfectionism will hinder you from writing that all important rubbish first draft.

Just write about whatever you happen to think of. If all you can think about is your boring day at the office, then write about your boring day at the office. If all you can think about is aliens stealing bananas to power their spaceship, then write about banana stealing aliens. If it’s good, great. If it’s bad, that’s great too. What matters is that you write something. Anything. You can throw out the things you’re not proud of and you can refine anything that’s got rough edges later. What matters is that you start to write and persevere, no matter how many scrunched up paper balls you surround yourself with.

You’ll be amazed at what you can end up with.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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5 Simple Brain Unblockers

Originally published 29/11/2015

There is no blacker void than writer’s block. You might have the best intentions in the world of sitting down with a giant mug of tea for a few hours and resisting all your usual distractions but for some reason… nothing. You draw a blank. An hour ago you had so many ideas you thought they might start to leak out your ears but now… nothing. You think you may never write another word. We all know it happens to the best of us but that just doesn’t make it any easier.

I won’t lie to you; this post is pretty much the result of an afternoon spent swimming in the ocean of writer’s block, clinging on to the driftwood of terrible ideas. There are millions of different websites and books out there offering various suggestions on how to beat writer’s block and I’ve concluded that there is simply no ‘one size fits all’ method of getting back into the groove but here are a few techniques that I find myself employing on a regular basis.

Audition a Character

Characters, as I may have suggested previously, are the beating heart of any good story. If your story is still in the planning stage where it lacks a definite plot you might benefit from scribbling a few disjointed scenes featuring various different characters. Don’t worry too much about whether or not they are going to make the final cut of your story. That’s not the point. In fact, if you’re suffering from a truly chronic case of writer’s block, you’ll probably find it easier to write a very simple scene featuring only one or two characters doing something very every day, such as making the breakfast. This is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. With a little patience, your characters can take on a life of their own (and if they don’t, you’ve lost nothing!) and  the scenes you write will often help to develop your plot (or come up with a brand new story idea!) more than you might imagine.

Enjoy a Different Kind Of Story

If you’re like me, you probably enjoy stories of all kinds of different genres and mediums. If you’ve got the time to spare, leave your writing for a little while and immerse yourself in a story utterly different to anything you’ve been enjoying recently.

Have you been watching a lot of Star Wars recently? Maybe it’s time to try The Bucket List instead.

But perhaps you’ve just been watching too many films in general. In that case, ditch Star Wars and go and read Dune.

Better yet, ditch both genre and medium and instead find a production of Hamlet and go and watch it. Or, if you need something more interactive, find a computer game with a compelling story. Or perhaps it’s time for a true story. Or maybe you need something that will make you laugh instead of cry or something that will disturb you instead of amuse you. There are no rules. Find a brand new kind of story to love and let its different moods and textures inspire you.

Writing Exercises

It really depends what’s causing your writer’s block, but sometimes all you need is something to give you a little nudge. Ask the internet for writing exercises and you’ll find plenty of useful websites and apps which offer all kinds of different springboards to productivity. WritingExercises.co.uk is a personal favourite of mine which includes a whole plethora of tools to spark the imagination such as name generators, plot generators, word games and random first lines but there are many, many more.

Better yet, if you know roughly what sort of thing you’re interested in writing, do a Google Image search and pick one of the results as a stimulus. This works best if you search for an abstract term. So, if you’re wanting to write a medical drama (for instance) you’ll probably find it a more effective exercise if you search for ‘health’ rather than ‘doctors’, since the latter is likely to only bring up a million pictures of folk wearing stethoscopes.

(I couldn’t resist Googling these things to see what happened. I was quite right; lots of people with stethoscopes and white coats appeared when I searched for ‘doctors’. When I searched for ‘health’ I got the odd stethoscope, but I also got a variety of other images such as a cartoon heart lifting weights, a little boy dressed as a superhero and an x-ray of a man running).

The Fear

Anyone who has ever been in any kind of education is probably very familiar with The Fear. The Fear is a severe but good-hearted non-corporeal taskmistress who enters your life about a day or two before your dissertation is due to be handed in and tortures you into producing some of your best work.

If you’re struggling to write your story, it’s time to give the old crone a call by imposing a deadline upon yourself. The best way to do this is to tell someone else who will hold you accountable (my wife usually is more than adequate to the task) that you have planned to write so many words by such-and-such a day and if you meet that goal… we can order a pizza!

Now my marriage and tomorrow’s dinner rest on whether or not I get another 1,000 words written by tomorrow.

Ding-a-ling. The Fear is on line one for you!

Visit Your Bathroom

Don’t ask me why this works but it does. Maybe it’s something in the tiles or perhaps it’s the added moisture in the athmosphere. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve had most of my best ideas in the bathroom.

If all this doesn’t work, then you’re probably working too hard at it. Take a break. Do something else. Come back the next day. It is ultimately better to delay productivity than to drive yourself to hate a hobby or career you once loved…

… Unless, of course, you’ve got a genuine deadline coming up in the next day or two. In that case, you’d better give The Fear a call and find out what the heck’s keeping her!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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